“But let anyone born in 1926 try to stay home on a Saturday night in 1998 and listen to Dick Haymes singing ‘Those Little White Lies.’ Just have them do that, and then tell me afterwards if they have not understood at last the celebrated doctrine of the catharsis effected by tragedy.”
—Philip Roth, The Human Stain.
This scherzo is the most dramatic of the four. It was dedicated to Adolf Gutmann because, according to Wilhelm von Lenz, only Adolf could play the chords in the bass, which cannot be spanned by any left hand (D# F# B D# F# in bar 6). Adolf was one of Chopin’s pupil who could apparently punch a hole in a table. It is also the most ironic and forcefully constructed of the four scherzos, with an almost Beethovenian majesty. The Schezro opens with two mysterious questions that are answered by two striking octaves that even seem uncompromising. The scherzo is built upon two sharply contrasting elements. The first theme in C sharp minor starts with a series of strong accents and thundering scales and follows by a fast and heroic march. As soon as the second theme appears in D flat major, the calmness and serenity wipe out the whole tension. These graceful and luminous passages consist of richly harmonized chorale phrases with shimmering waves of falling notes. It is said that these chorale phrases echo songs sometimes heard at the monastery in Valdemosa. The first theme then repeats, not less striking as when it first appears, but ends in a more shocking way that leads to the second theme, which is now in E major, not D flat major. The second theme follows using the same motif as the previous part, but the transition to the repetition in E minor calls for a sad memory that does not even exist before. After several quiet questions, a silent moment, several waves of sound, and falling octaves, the coda finally comes with a lot of agitation and turbulence. When the coda reaches the high E, a series of rolling waves runs up to a high G#, falls down to a daring stroke A in the bass, and concludes the work with brilliant masterstrokes in C#.
For me, there are two kinds of Chopin players: Apollonian and Dionysian – those who aim at some ideal, unchanging interpretation and those who, like jazz players, allow themselves to ride the musical wave, to discover things while they play. Both players run risks. The Platonists can fall into stultification. The Bacchantes can become merely eccentric or the performance can simply break apart into chaos. The Platonist’s reward is a kind of “naturalness.” Perfect beauty seems to come from “just playing.” The Dionysian’s reward is ecstatic discovery. It forces the listener to “hear anew.” Argerich clearly belongs to the second group. That at so young an age she could bring off something so individual and so right amazes me. No wonder the Poles [at the Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 1965] went nuts.
Nothing in the interpretation betrays the music. Still, the interpretation remains one-of-a-kind. Argerich chooses to emphasize the instability of the piece. The opening measures harmonically and rhythmically leave the listener up in the air. The confusion lasts only a moment, as she launches into the main strain. This unleashes a demonic energy, which runs smack into a chorale idea. This usually signals pianists to switch straight into their “nobilmente” gear. Yet, Argerich doesn’t take it straight, preferring to contrast the chords with a glittering arpeggio. Again, this destabilizes the texture, leading to (after the reappearance of the chorale idea) an inexorable rush to the end. What Argerich has done, in contrast to other pianists, is essentially extend the arch of the piece. Her command of dynamics and color here is superb.
Shenandoah (1889), a play by Bronson Howard. The outbreak of the Civil War means that two West Point friends, Kerchival West of New York and Robert Ellingham of Virginia, must take opposing sides. Before the war, each man was in love with the other’s sister. Both men become colonels in their respective armies.
I grew up in a small town in Northeastern Pennsylvania called Shenandoah, and now, in old age, I live in Virginia very near the Valley of the same name, where Karen and I spend a lot of time these days hunting.
The name Shenandoah is consequently very evocative for me, so I cannot possibly avoid linking this truly over-the-top performance of the traditional folk song Shenandoah by Tom Waits and Keith Richards: 4:02 audio.
Paul Slade traces the (factual and performance) history of America’s favorite revenge ballad, “Stagger Lee,” and gleefully explains that “each successive generation darkens the song and casts aside another scrap of what pity [for the shooting victim, Billy] remains.”
“SHOT IN CURTIS’S PLACE
“William Lyons, 25, coloured, a levee hand, living at 1410 Morgan Street, was shot in the abdomen yesterday evening at 10 o’clock in the saloon of Bill Curtis, at Eleventh and Morgan streets, by Lee Sheldon, also coloured.
“Both parties, it seems, had been drinking, and were feeling in exuberant spirits. Lyons and Sheldon were friends and were talking together. The discussion drifted to politics, and an argument was started, the conclusion of which was that Lyons snatched Sheldon’s hat from his head.
“The latter indignantly demanded its return. Lyons refused, and Sheldon drew his revolver and shot Lyons in the abdomen [...] When his victim fell to the floor, Sheldon took his hat from the hand of the wounded man and coolly walked away.”
– St Louis Globe-Democrat, December 26, 1895.
There were five other murders that Christmas night in St Louis, but this was the one that counted. Work songs, field chants and folktales describing how Lee ‘Stack Lee’ Shelton killed Billy Lyons started to spring up almost immediately. The earliest written lyrics we have date back to 1903, and the first discs to 1923. There have been well over 200 versions of Stack’s story released on record since then, giving him a list of biographers which includes some of the biggest names in popular music. Duke Ellington, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and James Brown have all recorded the song at one time or another, as have Wilson Pickett, The Clash, Bob Dylan, Dr John and Nick Cave. Even Elvis Presley had a stab at it in a 1970 rehearsal session which later surfaced as a bootleg CD.
Lloyd Price landmark 1957 version, “a runaway train of a record, fueled by blaring horns and the backing singers’ constant roars of encouragement.” Go, Stagger Lee!